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Study to Examine Water Levels in Relation to Spawning of Northern Pike

Benjamin Smith, Watertown Daily Times Staff Writer

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The Department of Environmental Conservation and State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry are beginning a new study to see how water levels of streams affect the spawning of northern pike.

Through cooperation with the Department of Transportation, the DEC has installed a fish ladder and water control device around the Route 12 overpass of French Creek. Other sites included in the study are Cranberry Creek, Wilson Bay and Crooked Creek.

Pike numbers have dwindled in recent years with the loss of adequate spawning habitat, according to John M. Farrell of ESF.

"We are finding that there are not as many that survive that crucial first year," he said.

Through structures such as Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Massena, the International Joint Commission has attempted to keep a steady water level for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The constant levels in creeks and streams feeding into the St. Lawrence have led to poor reproductive success of the northern pike, Mr. Farrell said.

"There is a 30 to 35 year cycle of fluctuation in these waterways that has been interrupted, leading to a change in the plant communities," he said.

Roger M. Klindt, fisheries biologist at DEC, said "We are setting up experimental sites to manipulate water levels in the spring so they can get into more ideal spots in the tributaries."

According to a recent study done by the College and DEC, pike traveling to spawning grounds up river have not been laying eggs in their traditional sites. Instead, Mr. Farrell said, they have been turning around and laying eggs in deeper water closer to the river, much later in the season. This has led to a decreased growing season, making survival in winter much harder, and increased predation on newly hatched pikes.

"We think what's happening is the fish can't find sustainable habitat for the eggs, so they turn around and swim back to the inlets and bays to spawn," Mr. Farrell said.

The steady level of the waterways has led to an increase in cattails, which smoother pike eggs during the incubation period. The hopes of the study is that flooding the creeks will drown the cattails and allow more open water for pikes to spawn.

Through programs like Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the study has built a network of four sites, with a fifth planned. The number of pike in the river are dependent on smaller local populations around spawning areas like Wilson Bay. Pike will return to the same creek every year, never venturing too far away.

"Through a tagging study, we found that pikes tend to stay close to the same bays, they don't migrate like muskies and others," Mr. Farrell said.

The study is funded through the DEC's Sport Fish Restoration Fund. Mr. Klindt said he hopes it will lead to a self-sustaining pike population helped by limited input and control by environmental groups.

"Hopefully, this will lead to a way to manage the lake that will benefit the wildlife without sacrificing our needs for shipping and recreational use," Mr. Klindt said.